It’s hard to believe that three years have passed since Ben Gibbard and his Bellingham, WA compatriots released Narrow Stairs, the most unsettled and harrowing entry in the Death Cab for Cutie catalogue. In that time, literary frontman Ben Gibbard quit his boozing ways and got hitched to Zooey Deschanel, a woman most self-aware indie hipster types would cite as their preferred Hollywood actress. A positive turn of events for Gibby all but guaranteed that the next Death Cab record would be a less petulant affair, and true to expectations, Codes and Keys happens to be one of the band’s most effervescent, sanguine efforts to date. This isn’t to suggest that everything is now sunshine and daisies for the storied quartet, but there’s a notable lack of sad sack melancholia that seems to be inciting a move into more blissful territory.
The origin of Death Cab for Cutie’s reinvention can be traced back to 2005, when the band’s decision to leave independent Seattle label Barsuk Records and head to Ahmet Ertegun’s empire at Atlantic Records brought about a slight shift of aesthetics. While the group’s reflective and precious songcraft remained intact, much of the quirkiness and intimacy of their early records (“Little Fury Bugs” from We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes and “Passenger Seat” from the critically acclaimed Transatlanticism are two such examples) were dialed down in favor of a sound tailored for mass consumption; the production got slicker, the melodies got hookier, and in no time Ben Gibbard had romanced his way into every emoting teenager’s heart with the acoustic ballad “I Will Follow You Into the Dark.” That song, though not the best track from Plans, was something of a sea change for the group; suddenly, Death Cab was on the cover of Spin magazine, performing on Saturday Night Live, and pulling in Grammy nominations. Retaliation was sort of inevitable, and it manifested itself in the form of Narrow Stairs’ turbulence.
On Codes and Keys, it seems that indie rock’s major label poster children have finally achieved a sort of equilibrium, locating that sweet spot where longtime supporters and more recent devotees alike can comfortably rub shoulders. For those in need of explicit evidence, the best place to start is at the end: closing track “Stay Young, Go Dancing” ranks among the most unabashedly ebullient tunes in the DCFC discography, with Ben Gibbard declaring, over buoyant acoustic strumming, “I’m renewed / oh, how I feel alive / and through winter’s advancing / we’ll stay young go dancing.”. It’s a far cry from previous Death Cab codas like “The Ice Is Getting Thinner” and “A Lack of Color,” both of which freely wallowed in – to quote another downer track from Narrow Stairs – pity and fear.
The group’s positive reframe is palpable in other Codes and Keys songs too – gorgeous album centerpiece “Unobstructed Views” speaks of “no unobstructed views / no perfect truths / just our love,” while lead single and irresistible pop tune “You Are a Tourist” exclaims, “When there’s a burning in your heart / an endless yearning in your heart / build it bigger than the sun / let it grow.” Whether bleak or blithe, Gibbard has always had a penchant for crafty wordplay, but the instrumentals here also reflect a newfound sparkle. “Tourist” is among the most propulsive tracks, with a galloping groove from drummer Jason McGerr and Chris Walla’s elastic lead guitar melodies (Am I the only one who hears traces of Annie Lennox’s cover of “No More I Love You’s” in that riff?).
Even on the darker tunes, the band’s portents of a less guitar-centric record come to fruition. Opening cut “Home Is a Fire,” despite its imagery of domestic unrest, remains a sprightly combination of McGerr’s cymbals, atmospheric keyboard harmonies, and steady yet unobtrusive bass playing from Nick Harmer. The album’s title track makes the piano and small string orchestra its central voices, Walla’s guitar patterns now pushed way back in the mix.
Still though, this wouldn’t be a true Death Cab affair without some truly crestfallen numbers. “Some Boys” directs its ire at dudes without boundaries, set to a triplet-frenzied beat and fuzzed-out bass. The singalong melodies of “Underneath the Sycamore” compare human anguish to the wreckage of a car crash. The album’s finest track, “St. Peter’s Cathedral” is a sprawling piece of ambience which questions the soul’s destination after death, ultimately concluding that “there’s nothing past this.”
Codes and Keys might be more prophetic than we realized; with a title that suggests the arcane and the esoteric, Death Cab for Cutie seems to have found its new MO in songs that are shrouded in mystery yet radiate light beneath. It certainly lacks the ambition and scope of Transatlanticism, but given the group’s recent personal and professional triumphs, it’s encouraging to hear them produce a piece of work reflective of their situation.